A Failed Attempt to Summit the Osorno Volcano
Icicles were starting to form on my frozen sunglasses. I could not feel my fingers. But I could see a lime green jacket in front of me through the ice and snow, motivating me to move forward. This was not how I’d envisioned my first climb attempt to go. And yet, there I was, slowly slogging my body over the icy ski slope. I’d be lucky to reach the base of the glacier – the section that I’d anticipated as just the beginning of the challenge to summit the Osorno Volcano in Chile’s lake region.
Months of dreaming of this first volcano summit evaporated with an email a few days prior to the trek. Strong winds and reduced visibility were in the forecast, which meant that that our Adventure World Travel Summit Day of Adventure group would have to settle for “plan B” – climbing as high as it was safe which likely meant to the base of the glacier at 2,100 meters.
I realize now that this ascent was more than just a day of adventure as part of the summit. I’d tied it to meanings and symbolism – physical and emotional. I’d opened myself to the possibility of this once in a lifetime chance. New gear had been purchased, goals balancing dangerously on the edge of successfully reaching the summit. In many ways, all of my build up was doomed to end in an avalanche – just like the one we were avoiding with our more cautious Plan B.
Was it strength that I was hoping to find on top of Chile’s “King of the South”?
Confidence? Validation? Inspiration?
In my own way, I’d connected my progress in life to this one event. My work self and my personal self were tied up in expectations and goals surrounding a singular climb over snow and ice – in the hopes of standing strong at the peak, even if I knew that the risk of weather was real and that anything could happen. I told myself that reaching a summit would be a pinnacle moment. I wanted a challenge. I wanted to embrace the technical aspects of the ascent. I wanted the journey.
It turns out that I got all those things even without reaching the tippy top.
Climbing a volcano is as much mental as physical
The mental challenge started at the very beginning as I watched as my fellow climbers suited up with headlamps, multiple layers and gaiters to keep dry. None of my previous hiking experience had ever required such technical gear and even though I’d read and prepared myself as best I could – I had a sinking feeling that I was in over my head.
I managed to round up a bit of confidence leaving the first rifugio as we hiked through the soft brown soil speckled with fresh snow that felt like walking in sand. Making my way up the steep ridge to the first look out, I saw sunrise peeking through a thick layer of clouds, revealing the lake far below. For just a moment I felt a glimmer of hope. Anything was possible.
It did not take long for me start lagging behind the fast group, but I was not completely discouraged yet.
The weather gods were not in a good mood
Reality started to set in when we reached the next rifugio – or hut – to warm up, eat snack and strap on the gear that we’d need. The four walls provided shelter against the elements as banana peels, chocolate wrappers and used tissues piled up as evidence that we were there. The faster – or more experienced group – patiently waited for the rest of us (even if I could see frustration in some of their eyes. Any heat they’d restored was gone in the long wait.)
I watched the veterans putting on their crampons and harness, hoping to not need any help. Except that my nerves and inexperience were stronger than my observation skills. Mike Santiago – a pro climber reached between my legs with a simple “Excuse me” to get me strapped in. I was just grateful for the help – knowing I had a long way to go before I’d be able to handle my gear like the folks who clipped and snapped into place as if they’d done it thousands of times.
Little did I know how much I’d depend on my crampons with their claw-like fingers sticking out under my boots – to keep me from blowing off the mountain.
Emerging from the rifugio – I eventually fell in line with José Miguel Potthoff Pugin – one of the two brothers and expert climbers that lead Huella Andina Expeditions – who had become my personal guide for the day.
My first few steps in the -5 degree (Celsius) temperatures, sideways blowing snow and hail were almost confident as I looked ahead, knowing that another guide and pair of climbers were behind me. I told myself that I'd focus on my breathing. Take one step at a time. I could do this.
A few moments later (it felt like much longer), I noticed that all of a sudden there was no one behind me. With winds gusting up to 60 miles per hour, they’d turned back because of the cold. All at once, I was in the last position. Admittedly, I wondered if I should have gone with them.
My pace was slow. I counted out ten steps at a time. If the blowing snow and hail was not enough to reduce my visibility, my sunglasses – which I wore as a protection against the elements since there was no sunlight to be seen – froze and then fogged, eliminating any chance to really see what lay ahead (or below) my feet. All I could see was Jose Miguel’s green jacket and blue backpack under the corner of my right eye.
“Could this pace be realistic to reach the top?” I asked.
“Yes, it would take about 4 hours.” (Even it if was only 4km.)
I basically snowplowed my way up the mountain, taking too wide of a stance – muscling my way up over the ice that somehow the crampons allowed my feet to feel stable on.
“I look pretty bad, right?”
Start. Stop. Start. Stop. José Miguel would wait.
“How cold are your fingers on a scale of 1-10?” he asked.
“7, I think.”
Given that I was beginning to lose sensation and felt like I’d lose grip of my trekking poles, I’d probably been overly optimistic… but José Miguel knew better. He traded gloves with me, offering me his Black Diamond Lobster gloves – squeezing his own larger hand into my white ski gloves. Within minutes my fingers were down to a 5 (or maybe 6) on the scale.
“Frostbite is a dangerous thing.” he said.
Um yes. Note to self...must order these gloves for myself.
Gulp. I went back to counting my steps. I had to keep my left eye closed to protect it from the wind.
It occurred to me that I was being irresponsible. How did I think I could ever reach the summit? Everything in my brain told me that I should turn around. Maybe I would have been better off sticking to the glacier trek instead of going all in for the full volcano climg.
José Miguel would wait for me, just a few few steps ahead, looking for a sign that I wanted to continue. Or not. I saved my "head shaking from side to side in disbelief" for when he resumed and turned up the mountain. I lost track of the number of times I wanted to call out and say, “José Miguel – let's turn back.” The words were at the tip of my tongue in between sudden (and audible) gasps when I felt myself slip or step without confidence.
Sharp pain radiated from my left knee as I fell on a chunk of ice. I imagined the black and blue mark. Another fall, this time on my right side lit up my hip.
What the hell was I thinking?
José Miguel checked his watch and with the other guides on his walkie talkie as we went (he had plenty of time while he waited for me to move.) At 2,000 meters he said the other group was about 50 meters ahead of us. On the one hand, that didn’t sound like a lot. On the other hand, my insecurity didn’t want to them to have to wait for me.
“I can just sit on the mountain and wait if you want to go ahead.” I swore I said these words out loud, but apparently they were just in my head. José Miguel said we were only 20 minutes away from the glacier. I couldn’t give up now. Or could I?
“Look.” I heard José Miguel say between gusts of wind. The faster group had started their descent as was quickly approaching. We’d reached 2,055 meters. I was content. Proud. Ecstatic even...until I realized that going down might be even harder.
“Can I just slide down on my bottom?” I asked.
I was right. Going down was not easy. I channeled images of when my daughter first learned to ski – making zig zag patterns over the ice, relying on my monster grip crampons to keep me steady. Even the zig zags left room for the wind and conditions to throw me off course. My left leg felt stronger and more stable, so I relied on side stepping to reach the rifugio to “undo” my gear.
Honestly, I didn’t really want to take my crampons off. They’d helped me find my footing and I wasn’t sure I could proceed without them. Frozen and stunned at what I’d just done – I realized I had no idea how to even take the crampons off. Before I knew it, Jonathan – one of the faster and more experienced climbers – and another climber whose face I never even saw – knelt down to help me out. I laughed to myself at the sight of my frozen self with two generous and kind souls at my newbie and inexperienced feet. It was a nervous laugh for sure because I knew that the steep ridge that we’d climbed earlier in the day was ahead of me.
What I was not expecting was the most genuine and kindest fist pump me, congratulating me on sticking with it.
“You are a badass.” Jonathan cheered. “Those conditions were harsh.”
Through all of my doubt and disbelief, I’d only told myself part of the story. Yes, I was new and clearly not graceful as I trekked. Maybe I could have trained more so that I could pick up the pace. But the conditions we faced that day on the Osorno Volcano – were not exactly red carpet worthy. I may have wanted to turn around. But I didn’t. I’d risen despite falling in my mind. And although my feet never reached the summit of the Osorno Volcano, elation filled me.
In different conditions, I would have made it.
Slowly perhaps. Clunkily probably, once I was on the ropes climbing the last stretch of the glacier at 2,656 meters. But looking back, a part of me is grateful for the lack of visibility and heinous weather. Because as much as we can prepare and train – mentally and physically – there are always variables that are beyond our control. Coping with and fighting through the unexpected obstacles provides a different type of opportunity. Or at the very least in my case, reminded me that success is about more than just reaching the top.
As we approached the rifugio where we’d suited up earlier that morning, both pride and disappointment washed over me. The adventure was over and my time on the volcano was coming to an end. I hadn’t even seen the peak yet!
Later in the week, the Osorno Volcano did show itself. Against crisp blue skies, the massive volcano stood tall across the lake from Puerto Varas. I stopped what I was doing every single time I caught a glimpse, sometimes losing myself in its shadow. There was no doubt in my mind that I’d be back one day to climb and follow José Miguel’s lime green jacket all the way to the top. Except that this time, my goal would be to celebrate each step instead of waiting for the last step at the summit to feel joy.
*This post was previously published on LiveDoGrow.com